University Radio York 

26 April 2024 tbs.pm/80601

 

Cover of The Listener

From The Listener, dated 16 October 1969

‘In all the present uncertainties about the future of radio, one thing seems certain: local radio is here to stay, and we shall have more of it. The only question is whether it shall be financed out of BBC licence revenue, or out of the proceeds of advertising, or some mixture of the two?’ Thus Roy Shaw in the Listener of 31 July. Those who would like to see the exploration of other possible means of financing local radio might draw a glimmer of hope from the case of University Radio York, which is financed neither out of BBC licence revenue, nor out of the proceeds of advertising, but by the students of the University of York. The ‘composition fee’ paid by each student at the beginning of the year includes £10 [£140 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed] for the Student Representative Council; a large portion of this money is then distributed to the various student groups and societies, in quantities decided by a finance sub-committee but subject to the approval of the student body. Grants of this kind eventually enabled URY to start transmitting (legally, on an allotted medium-wave frequency) on 30 April this year, after about two years of negotiation and technical manoeuvre. Evening broadcasts took place throughout the summer term, and have started again with the new academic year.

The initial idea of a student radio station at York first offered prospects of success when the GPO granted a test licence, authorising investigation of the technical problems. The main difficulty, one which still hasn’t been fully overcome, was in providing adequate reception in all the residential college blocks, while at the same time satisfying the GPO stipulation that the signal should not be receivable outside the campus. Working on a small initial SRC grant and some scraped-together equipment, much of the next 12 months was spent on this problem. At the beginning of the summer term of 1968, a false start was made, and for much of the term the test transmissions — largely pop music tapes —had a large audience on the campus. These broadcasts were, at best, semi-legal, since it transpired that they were audible in parts of the city (the campus is about one and a half miles out to the south-east). However, attention was drawn to the radio station and its potential importance: the SRC approved a breathtakingly large grant (over £1,000 [£13,850]), and the university authorities gave two rooms in a physics research block to be used as studios. These were equipped during the following summer vacation, but reception problems still blocked the way to a full licence. After two more terms’ hard work on the technical side, the GPO was satisfied and authorised full transmission. When regular scheduled broadcasting began, the quality of reception was still well below standard in some of the residential blocks.

 

A man operates a turntable

University Radio York takes to the air again after the long vacation

 

URY was the brain-child of a single student; in its early days it was guided by a three-man committee (the ‘ board’), expanded to eight or nine members early in 1968. The University itself is governed at every level by committees, and student societies at York tend to organise themselves by means of committees or similar structures. URY’s board — about a dozen members at present — consists of a chairman (the ‘director’) and various members who, in addition to their responsibilities as board members, have specific fields in which they operate. The democratic structure of URY is safeguarded several times over, but is manifested mainly in the fact that the URY board is not a policy-making body: it exists solely to lay broadcasting facilities before the students and to coordinate the resulting programmes into organised transmissions. It has no control over the opinions expressed; it seeks neither to suppress nor to guarantee a balancing opinion. The only restrictions are: no commercialism (banned by the University authorities), and no transgression of the laws of libel, obscenity etc. Under the present arrangements, certainly, there are several ways in which a URY board could, if it wished, manipulate the broadcast material to its own ends. As soon as the board started misbehaving in such a way, however, the student body could bring the safeguards into play, particularly through its control over URY’s finances.

The most important element in these finances is the annual application for an SRC grant. The studio cost about £1,300 [£18,000] to equip and at the beginning of the new academic year the SRC finance committee will be asked for another sizable grant, probably between £600 and £1,000 [£8,300 and £13,850]. Most of this is still needed to build up a workable studio — a second tape-recorder, for example, is desperately important. It’s too early to predict how much the station will cost to run in the more distant future, but figures so far have been very low by conventional radio station standards.

We started by broadcasting only three nights a week, from 9 p.m. to midnight, and were at first hard pushed to fill the time. After a few weeks people began to come forward to do programmes, and we soon adjusted to five nights a week (same hours). The main obstacle to a further increase in broadcasting time has been shortage of manpower in the technical and continuity departments.

The biggest proportion of programme time has been taken by pop music, with the emphasis on the ‘heavier’, John Peelish variety. ‘Straight’ music also gets a good deal of time, and the adherents of more specialist varieties — jazz, folk, even light classical — keep their respective flags flying. Not all subjects have fared so well: sport has been entirely neglected, despite a large potential audience, and current affairs has had only a limited impact so far. However, it needs only a determined sports enthusiast, or a greater degree of attention from the political groups, for this situation to change abruptly. Many of the best programmes have been in the English literature category, often with members of the academic staff taking a prominent part. If an esoteric piece of literary criticism crops up in a transmission otherwise devoted to music, it’s not because the powers that be have prescribed a bit of culture, but because somebody wanted to do it.

By far the greatest significance of URY lies in the precedents it is establishing. The GPO is treating it as a test case, and if its demands are satisfied, it may only be a matter of time before student radio is a regular aspect of campus life in Britain. Students at Lancaster are already moving to follow our example. Another important precedent is the establishment of a democratic radio station in this country. Financed and controlled by its audience, URY is surely in many ways a sounder prototype for local radio in Britain than either BBC or commercial local radio. (Which is not to say that we won’t be delighted if and when BBC Radio York arrives.) Against this it must be remembered that URY is still very vulnerable, and could be toppled without difficulty by either the University authorities or the GPO. No doubt there are those who see the station in terms of the encroachment of student power, and therefore as something to be suppressed as soon as possible. On the other hand, we have, generally speaking, encountered a wealth of interest and sympathy, in particular from individuals in the GPO and the BBC. It’s too early to predict a wildly successful future for URY — particularly as the reception problem still remains — but already we can claim a tremendous achievement in having obtained authorisation to transmit to the campus. The main thing now is the survival of URY’s legally established position as an independent radio station, and the survival of its democratic structure.

 

You Say

1 response to this article

Alec Jackson 28 April 2024 at 12:28 pm

Still going strong – see https://ury.org.uk/

I hosted the Lord Gnome Ensemble show during both the test transmissions and the legal ones …

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